Saturday, December 2, 2023

Dublin’s Best Bookstore Has Been a Bohemian Hot Spot Since the ’80s

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Tim E White/Alamy
Tim E White/Alamy

The Winding Stair bookshop is housed in a strikingly yellow four-story building that dates back to 1875. Perched on the banks of the River Liffey, the bookshop itself has been there since the ’80s, and is considered a protected structure by the Dublin City Council. In previous lives, it was used as a sales and auction house, an art gallery, a toy shop, and the former offices of In Dublin magazine. The adjacent Woollen Mills restaurant once housed the haberdashery where literary legend James Joyce was once employed as a salesman of Irish tweed.

Besides being steeped in Dublin history, the Winding Stair is still a popular meeting spot for locals and visitors alike. In 1982, book lover Kevin Connolly transformed a corner of the aforementioned magazine office into the bookshop and café it is today. Its name was inspired by Yeats’ reference to a winding stair in one of his poems, and Connolly originally intended to run the shop for just a year. “I started with five boxes of books, a twenty-pound note, a huge amount of enthusiasm, and absolutely no knowledge of bookselling,” he said.

To Connolly’s surprise, the shop quickly became a gathering place for writers, musicians, and artists. Throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, bohemians of all kinds considered it the place to seen and be seen. Students, writers, and other literary types gathered there to drink cheap cups of tea and eat Connolly’s mother’s famous fruit cake, while thumbing their way through a cache of dog-eared poetry books. Eventually, In Dublin magazine moved out and the bookshop took over the entire building. But Connolly eventually chose to sell the business in 2005, when escalating rents made business untenable. Much to the local’s great relief, restaurateur Elaine Murphy took the reins the following year, transforming the laid back café into a mainstay of

Ireland’s culinary scene. Thankfully, on the ground floor, The Winding Stair bookshop remains untouched and continues to welcome a new generation of readers, writers, and explorers—even if the tea is more expensive than it was back in the ’80s.

People reading inside the cozy interior of the Winding Stair bookshop.
Tim E White/Alamy

A Step Back in Time

Dubliners can—and should!—be a little smug when it comes to their city’s impressive literary history. As the city that gifted us James Joyce, it boasts a literary history that runs as deep as the River Liffey. Iconic figures, such as the aforementioned Yeats, as well as Samuel Beckett, Bram Stoker, and Oscar Wilde were all Dublin natives. The Trinity College Library, hosts the Book of Kells, that famous illuminated manuscript from the 9th century. Today, Dublin continues to be a thriving hub for writers and artists, with literary festivals and bookshops like The Winding Stair celebrating the enduring legacy of Dublin’s contribution to world literature.

Crossing the threshold into The Winding Stair bookshop is a bit like stepping back in time. The combination of retro light fittings, rickety wooden tables, creaky floorboards and narrow shelves that sag under the weight of the books sets a warming and welcoming tone. The inviting aroma of old and new paper creates feelings of both yearning and nostalgia, while the occasional sloshing sound of the River Liffey provides a sense of serenity in the midst of an otherwise busy city. These may be the reasons why The Winding Stair bookshop tends to inspire even the most creatively challenged. Dublin local Niamh Bailey has been a patron of The Winding Stair since her days as a wayward teen in the late ‘80s. “As a group, myself and my friends spent countless hours here, drinking milky tea and reading books that we were convinced made us look utterly brilliant and well read,” she says. “Times might have moved on, but The Winding Stair remains reassuringly the same.” She still stops by whenever she’s in the city.

The Winding Stair bookshop sells books by local Irish authors.
Tim E White/Alamy

The Cultural Connection

The Winding Stair bookshop’s commitment to fostering Dublin’s cultural scene goes beyond its impressive collection of books. While the bookshop may be on the smaller end, it remains a community space cherished by both locals and visitors. It serves as a platform for local artists and writers by regularly hosting book launches, readings, and exhibitions. These events provide a much needed space for creative minds to connect with their audience and each other, thus enriching the city’s vibrant cultural tapestry. The cozy atmosphere of the bookshop, with its intimate seating areas and the never-too-loud music in the background, lends itself perfectly to such gatherings. It’s a place where people can discuss, debate, and celebrate the written word. In the past, the bookstore has welcomed notable Irish literary figures such as Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Sinead O’Connor, and Nancy Griffith—all of whom have found inspiration within its walls.

Today, the bookstore is a proud supporter of local talent and continues to champion Irish literature and support local and emerging writers and artists. Amidst the tightly packed shelves you will find a curated selection of works from self-published writers and smaller presses as well as the bigger, more obvious names, along with a range of cards and prints from independent artists.

But First, We Eat

Of course, all of these artists, writers and bibliophiles need to eat, so in addition to its highbrow literary offerings, The Winding Stair bookshop also houses the aforementioned Winding Stair Restaurant. Located on the top floor of the building, it offers patrons an authentic Irish culinary experience alongside breathtaking views of the River Liffey. Beyond boasting a stunning atmosphere, the reputation for using locally sourced, seasonal ingredients and a menu that changes with the seasons. The Winding Stair Restaurant has become a favorite dining spot for both locals and tourists, the irresistible blend of traditional Irish recipes with a modern twist has garnered praise from food lovers and critics alike. All in all, a visit to this iconic establishment is the perfect way to spend an afternoon in Dublin.

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Ciara McQuillan is a contributor for Thrillist.

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